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READ & WATCH: Meet new Queen's engineering professor, Levente Balogh

By Matt Mills, FEAS communications staff

When uranium atoms in the fuel at the heart of a working nuclear reactor break apart, the resulting release of heat energy is used to generate valuable electricity. But by-products of the reaction also include the emission of gamma rays and neutrons: ionizing radiation. Nuclear power plants are carefully designed to keep that radiation contained for safety’s sake. But just as uncontained ionizing radiation can damage living tissue, it can also, over time, change the structural properties of building materials.

Metal pipes and reactor components can, for example, become brittle from exposure to high-intensity radiation. That brittleness can lead to cracking and failure. That’s why so much care, effort and resources go into designing, inspecting and refurbishing commercial nuclear power reactors.

It’s also why the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering here at Queen’s has recruited three new faculty members this year with various and complementary areas of expertise in nuclear materials. One of them, newly minted Assistant Professor Dr Levente Balogh, is an experimentalist who specializes in the irradiation and characterization of materials.   

Balogh earned his PhD at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. He did three years of post-doctoral work at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico before taking a post-doctoral role here at Queen’s. He then spent a year as a research scientist at the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Chalk River before returning to Queen’s in January. 

“We use X-rays and neutron radiation to scatter off materials – typically engineering materials – to characterize their composition, crystalline structure and their defect structure,” says Balogh. “My expertise is in these advanced characterization methods.”

The Reactor Materials Testing Laboratory (RMTL) at Queen’s has a world-class proton accelerator and advanced microscopy instruments. As Balogh builds his research group, he plans to use the accelerator, for example, to simulate the effects of high-intensity radiation on samples of building materials used in the core of nuclear reactors. He can then collaborate, for example, with Dr Suraj Persaud to include corrosion phenomena in the investigation of the effects of radiation on the material’s structure and composition. The data collected could then be used by Dr Laurent Béland, for example, to help refine and improve mathematical models designed to predict how long specific materials can tolerate exposure to the radiation inside a nuclear reactor before the parts made from them need replacement. Ultimately it’s work that will lead to commercial nuclear reactor designs and materials that are longer-lasting, more efficient, safer, and more cost effective.

 

“The knowledge and expertise of the people in the Nuclear Materials Group is complementary. Every person is an expert in a specific area, and all these together form a diverse research team.”

-  Dr Levente Balogh

“The knowledge and expertise of the people in the Nuclear Materials Group is complementary,” says Balogh. “Every person is an expert in a specific area, and all these together form a diverse research team. It is a very strong group in my opinion.”

Balogh is already laying plans for this own research group. He’s looking for graduate students at both the Master’s and PhD levels who are interested in hands-on experimental work. As well as designing and executing experiments at the RMTL, his research plans include travel to other world-class experimental facilities, such as the Argonne, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos National Laboratories in the US. At these facilities they have materials characterization instruments based on synchrotron X-ray and spallation neutron sources, where users can apply for time to conduct experiments. Synchrotrons and spallation neutron sources are physically large instruments that can produce X-ray and neutron beams of very high intensity, respectively. Typically, the brightness of a synchrotron X-ray source can be billions of times stronger than those that can be produced in an on-campus lab.

“These facilities are very impressive,” says Balogh. “At spallation neutron sources, protons are accelerated to a very high percentage of the speed of light with accelerators that are many kilometres long and are impacted on a target to produce the neutron radiation used for the experiments. These are huge instruments and we’re using them in our research to investigate samples centimetres or millimetres in size to characterize tiny features in them that are measured on the order of nanometers. It’s very interesting.”

Closer to home at Queen’s, Balogh plans eventually to build a high-resolution, high-intensity X-ray facility. He will also collaborate with researchers in the physics department and the Canadian Particle Astrophysics Research Centre (CPARC) to use neutron radiation generated at RMTL for the calibration of dark matter and other particle astrophysics detectors. It’s both the university and city, says Balogh, that dovetails nicely with his aspirations.

“I was looking for an academic career but I also like Kingston,” he says. “For me it’s not too crowded but not too small either, that was one of the reasons I wanted to come back.”

 

Levente Balogh

A NEW ADDITION: New Queen’s engineering professor, Dr Levente Balogh, is part of a group of recently hired engineering faculty brought in partly to support the new Canadian Particle Astrophysics Research Centre (CPARC).

Levente Balogh

STATE OF THE ART FACILITIES: Much of Dr Balogh's experimental work will done here in Kingston at the Reactor Materials Testing Laboratory (RMTL).

Argone

HUGE MACHINES: Members of Balogh's research team will likely conduct experiments on equipment at other research institutions like the synchotron at The Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.